Agriculture, Livestock/Poultry February 01, 2023
Agent of Change: Corwin Heatwole
Corwin Heatwole is bringing farmers back to the forefront of the poultry industry.
The waiting list to become a Farmer Focus grower sits at well over 100. "Not a week goes past that farmers don't call and ask to be added to the list. We've gotten calls from almost every state," says Corwin Heatwole, founder of Farmer Focus organic chicken brand.
Heatwole created his own organic poultry brand to break free from integrated poultry production.
His willingness to force change has directly improved the life and finances of his own and nearly 100 other area farm families. Competition from Farmer Focus has even raised the market for surrounding poultry producers.
Conventional production was a no-win grind for Heatwole. He had no control. Companies delivered birds and feed of varying quality. Any profit was earned in a tournament system, meaning his success came at the cost of another farmer.
Forced facility upgrades and use of questionable and often expensive practices further eroded already meager potential profits.
The Harrisonburg, Virginia, poultry producer broke from standard production in 2014. He purchased 300 of his own birds, raising them in an organic system. Within months his flock swelled to 3,000 birds.
Once he had a solid model in place, he brought in other farmers creating Shenandoah Valley Organic then Farmer Focus brand.
"I was excited and scared to bring in other producers. I was excited to share success, but I was bringing risk as well," he says.
Farmer Focus contracts growers to raise organic chickens using a model where the grower purchases the birds and feed. They also control flock management with limited requirements.
Each suggested practice is first carefully trialed and vetted on Heatwole's own farm. Decisions from the boardroom to the poultry houses, harvest and packaging facilities are made guided by the requirements that they:
1. Increase farm profitability.
2. Improve animal welfare.
3. Lower the farm or business greenhouse gas footprint.
Bold change. "Our mission is to promote and protect generational family farms. To be generational there has to be a mindset of change. You must adopt practices and technology based on where consumer focus is heading," Heatwole says.
Regenerative practices are what consumers want and what he believes drives farm longevity.
Longevity requires profitability.
Farmer Focus partner farms earn on average 36% more producing for the brand than they did prior.
Growth was tentative at first. As neighbors flourish, other farmers soon flocked to the brand.
Farmer Focus growers numbered 77 in 2021 with an additional 20 farmers added in 2022. Heatwole wants more.
"I dream big. I don't share my dreams sometimes because people think I'm crazy," he says. Heatwole has seen the positive impact his model has had. He knows it works and that it's scalable. "I want to take it everywhere. My team has to push me to slow down."
He knows there will be mistakes and false starts. Initially he planned to sell whole birds to industrial processors.
"It only took a few months for that business plan to fail," Heatwole says. But it didn't stop him. He moved on to self processing, deboning for greater profit, creating a brand and more. "It's a mindset. You have to not fear mistakes and be ready to pivot."
Embracing change has significantly changed the future of his own farm. Heatwole's 17-year-old daughter, Sierra, is now the primary caretaker of his family's poultry operation.
"This model has turned my farm into a generational farm. Before, I couldn't in good conscience have passed the burden of the farm to my children. Now it's not a burden. It's viable and sustainable," Heatwole says. ‡
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